Review: Fireball - Visitors From Darker Worlds is par for the course for Herzog, but that’s alright

Herzog (right) with co-director Clive Oppenheimer.

Werner Herzog is one of the world’s least likely cultural icons. Initially famous for directing artistic features like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Nosferatu the Vampyre, you can now see and hear him in everything from Rick and Morty to The Mandalorian. Not bad for a 78-year-old with a thick German accent. “I’m not stardust,” he jokes at one point in his latest. “I’m Bavarian.”

Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds finds him once again behind the camera, but continuing a string of documentaries best described as high-budget personal essays. If you’ve seen any of these — like Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Into the Inferno — you probably know exactly what to expect.

In standard Herzog fashion, then, Fireball is an exploration of comet and asteroid impacts, but less from a scientific or chronological perspective than their effect on human culture. Accordingly, he and co-director Clive Oppenheimer whip around the world from Alsace, France — where a meteor was said to foreshadow the Habsburg empire — to places like India, Italy, and even Antarctica.

Not that the movie feels slapdash. Herzog is very much in control of his filmmaking, delivering a smooth synthesis of editing, cinematography, and music. We meet some genuinely interesting people and I can guarantee you’ll learn something new, whether scientifically or historically. Quasicrystals are a thing, for instance.

If there’s an overriding issue with the film it’s that as with Herzog’s other recent documentaries he tends to be guided by impulsive thoughts, which are no mystery thanks to his regular narration. Why, for example, do we need to know that Chicxulub — the site of the comet impact that killed the dinosaurs — is now a beach resort “so godforsaken you want to cry,” and spend several minutes touring its decay? Herzog tries to draw a line from Chicxulub through to the Mexican Day of the Dead, one that seems pretty tenuous.

Indeed while all of the film’s setpieces are thematically related, they don’t really connect to each other beyond that and Herzog’s whims. The final scene showcases a small Pacific island where meteors are deeply embedded into the local religion…and then the movie just ends. No epiphanies, no grand conclusion. Samsara this is not.

Make no mistake, I’ll still go to bat for Fireball as a good film. It’s engaging, educational, and beautiful, ultimately avoiding any serious missteps. But it would benefit from a stronger commitment to its ideas, perhaps through a more comprehensive view of human history and an explicit thesis statement.

To his credit, Herzog himself is probably the greatest reason to watch. Few other documentary makers exude this much personality in their work, much less to the point that it feels natural for them to interrupt a shot. In the Antarctica section of the film he jumps on the microphone to praise a moment “stupid, doctrinal film schools would never allow” — a distracting man entering the background of an interview. We hardly need to hear this, yet Herzog manages to get away with it in his own inimitable manner.

Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds is now streaming on Apple TV+.

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